A competent, sometimes imaginative adaptation By AMY BIANCOLLI (Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle) The Nanny Diaries, a competent and sometimes imaginative adaptation of Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus' scandalous best-seller, is perfectly well acted. It is perfectly well scathing in its indictment of self-absorbed Manhattan mommies who ignore their kids for the sake of waxing. It invites us to loathe them, pity them and feel profound gratitude toward them (in a rush of schadenfreude) for affirming our own status as engaged and loving parents. I walked out thinking, "Yesss! I'm not a bad mother, after all!" But who wants to spend time with folks like this, anyway? They're snobs and bores, a devastating combo. Laura Linney does virtuoso work as the main mommy dearest, discreetly referred to as "Mrs. X," who hires recent college graduate Annie (Scarlett Johansson) to look after her precocious and neglected only child, Grayer (Nicholas Art). Grayer, initially a brat, greets the new nanny with a swift kick to the shin, but before long he has glommed onto her loving ways like a spoonful of peanut butter straight from the jar. Nanny Annie grows to love the boy and simultaneously fear and obsess over her host family, which also includes a Wall Street monstrosity of a father (Paul Giamatti, cast vividly against type). Annie's best friend (Alicia Keys) frets that Annie is throwing away her anthropology degree. Annie's mom (Donna Murphy), who thinks that Annie has taken a job in finance, frets that she never gets time off. Meanwhile, a stupefyingly kind and attractive neighbor dubbed the "Harvard hottie," does everything within his many powers to lure Annie away to a romantic dinner, and although these powers do not include spontaneous human ignition (Chris Evans is, after all, the torch from Fantastic Four), he does manage to drag her out for a slice. And so the movie rolls along, doling out tart observations in one scene, a touch of warmth in the next, pausing to incorporate Annie's wry cultural observations in narration. In the movie's best recurring visual motif, writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the marrieds behind American Splendor, also with Giamatti) re-imagine typical Upper East Side scenarios as lacquered dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History: Dads playing golf. A businessman with a cell phone. Mothers getting makeovers. A woman with bulimia. These life-size mannequins, arranged behind Plexiglas next to scenes from the Amazon, captures Annie's knack for anthropology and promotes the idea that her story is more than a movie; it's ethnography. If so, it doesn't go far enough. It doesn't dish enough dirt on this obscure tribe of well-heeled egotists to make us feel we're observing anything other than a college grad's long-delayed loss of innocence. I have no complaint with Johansson, an actress who's most at ease when she's in over her head (Scoop, Match Point) and yet seems too worldly to be classed as an ingénue. Emotionally, The Nanny Diaries hits pay dirt only during Johansson's scenes with Art, a moppet of entitlement with Jackie Cooper eyes. The climax is touching. But a saccharine coda kills the moment and seals the movie's fate as a well-made contrivance — too false to be funny, too pat to be real. "Everything I knew about nannying came from the movies," Annie confesses at the outset, cuing occasional nods to Mary Poppins (a fluttering umbrella, a cell phone that chimes to Chim Chim Cher-ee). I get the point: No, Annie, there aren't any magical solutions in the world of full-time child care. The movies can't teach us everything — not even this one.